Prisoner of Russia: Alexander Pushkin and the Political Issues of Nationalism

Article excerpt

Yuri Druzhnikov. Prisoner of Russia: Alexander Pushkin and the Political Issues of Nationalism. Translated by Thomas Moore and Ilya Druzhnikov. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1999. 454 pp., $61.95, cloth.

The eminent Russian historian Vasilii Kliuchevskii once observed that "one always wants to say too much about Pushkin, and one always ends up saying many extraneous things, leaving out the important ones" (p. xii). The image of Pushkin, a dominant figure in Russian culture, a genius whose works expressed Russia's whole destiny, weighs heavily upon scholars and biographers.

In the foreword to Prisoner of Russia, the author, a fiction writer and scholar, remarks that a century-and-a-half of research has yielded more about Pushkin than the poet ever knew about himself. Scholars have "exhaustingly explored" his views on literature, philosophy, religion, and economics; they have calculated "the range of every pistol shot he ever fired" and discovered "how long his fingernails were" (p. vii). However, Druzhnikov maintains, the voluminous research has not revealed certain mysteries about Pushkin.

Though filled with biographical and documentary detail, this book is neither a comprehensive biography, nor a critical survey of Pushkin's works. In the author's words, it represents a search for "a new approach towards Pushkin" (p. ix) and a skeptical inquiry into the life and works of Russia's foremost poet and writer. Druzhnikov finds that, since the nineteenth century and throughout the Soviet period, Pushkin has been turned into "an icon of worship insulated from the doubts and inquiries of skeptics" (p. xi). As Druzhnikov acknowledges, his goal is not to undermine Pushkin's significance but rather to purge the past of deception (p. xii).

Applying Soviet cliches to the reign of Nicholas I, Druzhnikov calls Pushkin, who had been banned from experiencing the world beyond his country's borders, "the first recognized 'refusenik' in Russia" (p. 354). A non-exiter, Pushkin was also an internal exile; he could not travel in his own country without government authorization. This theme is only too familiar to Druzhnikov, a dissident writer under the Soviet regime, who views Pushkin's exile through the prism of his own experiences.

The book focuses on twelve years in Pushkin's life, from 1817, the year when the poet graduated from the Western-oriented Lyceum in Tsarskoe Selo, until "one of the most mysterious episodes" (p. 417) in his life, the journey to Arzrum, on the Turkish border, where Pushkin escaped in 1829. Druzhnikov finds that Pushkin's life and works "can neither be understood, nor interpreted irrespective his desire to see the West" (p. xi).

Sixty-four years ago Ernest Simmons discussed the manner in which Tsar Nicholas I had formulated Pushkin's status for the rest of his life in a letter written to the exiled poet on September 1826: "Mr. Pushkin may travel in his own equipage at freedom, not in the position of a prisoner, and under the escort of the courier only..." (Simmons, Pushkin [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1937] p. 248). The American scholar succinctly summarized the tragedy of the poet who lived not under arrest, but neither as a free person, and revealed the poet's efforts to escape from Russia (Simmons, pp. 236-48).l Subsequently, other biographers also dealt with Pushkin's attempts to go abroad.2 For this reason, Druzhnikov's remark that-apart from an article published by Mstislav Tsiavlovskii in 1916 (p. xii)-the poet's exit file "has not been studied at all" (p. xi) comes as a surprise.

Druzhnikov goes beyond the idea that Pushkin was Russia's prisoner and suggests that the poet collaborated with the secret police in return for his freedom to travel abroad: "He was openly being prepared for a career of informing" (p. 379). The writer views the high society of Moscow and Petersburg as "one extended family-dissidents and informers" (p. 320), and suggests that the hopelessness of Russian existence made Pushkin into a fugitive. …